The Worst Kind of Cynical Exploitation of Youth

Langemark

Monument to the German dead

at Langemark Cemetery. 44,000 men are buried here including at least 3,000 students. German dead from all the battles in WW One which took place in the Ypres Salient were eventually placed in this cemetery. 

Kindermord bei Ypern

or the Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres

This phrase describes a small portion of the First Battle of Ypres during October 1914 in World War One.  After war broke out, casualties were such that the Germans had to immediately form reserve divisions in order to make up for their losses in men already killed or wounded or projected to be.  The Prussian Army formed the 4th Reserve Army and filled out 20% to 25% of each division with  student volunteers who were exempt from the draft. In the mythology of the war, it said that all six reserve divisions which made up 4th Army were 100% comprised of students but that is apparently not true.

Still, is a sad tale because there were tens of thousands of students in the reserve divisions. They knew little of life, nothing of war, and could not have imagined the cynicism of the High Command which later sent them into battle with less than eight weeks of training. The older men had served years ago and were not up to date with procedures and the officers and NCOs were not trained for the new way of war. About the best they knew how to do was march shoulder to shoulder at the enemy.

These young men who volunteered, were exempt from the draft since they were students but the mass hysteria of the time in the form of ultra-nationalism had seized them like a fever. Most of the students were from well-off families, mostly conservative and nationalist with a deep and romantic belief in German destiny. When called on, they flocked to the colors and left their school books behind. For Germany to concentrate her best and the brightest in a handful of formations wasn’t so intelligent.

Their naivete is best described by their opposite number on the English side, poet and soldier Rupert Brooke. These four lines from his sonnet “Peace” tell us everything about the mind set of so many young men of the era who knew nothing of impersonal, industrial war.

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping…

Brooke himself died from blood poisoning on April 23, 1915.

In a battle which came to symbolize their valor, the reserve divisions were hurled against British lines again and again at a village known as Langemarck close by the Belgium city of around Ypres. While the German students knew very little, they faced long service British Army regulars who knew a lot. One of the crucial things the British regulars knew was how to fire fifteen aimed rounds a minute from their Lee-Enfield rifles. Germans thought they were being machine gunned. Imagine, a thousand men, more or less a full strength battalion in the British Army, could fire 15,000 rounds each minute.

Over and over again the student volunteers were sent shoulder to shoulder against the British and over and over again these young men met the massed fire of thousands of British rifles. It was too much. The Germans finally broke off the attack but not until 41,000 men had been killed. Of these 25,000 were students.

It is the old who manipulate the emotions of the young and send them to war. It is a weighty responsibility which so many leaders in our country seem to disregard.

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/